IPCC Climate Change Report 2021: Still so much work to do – and we are doing it

UNSW civil and environmental engineers are doing their utmost to mitigate climate change impacts and build resilience.

“The scientific community has done its job,” said one of the Australian authors of the much-publicised recent report (August 2021) from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (Joëlle Gergis, The Saturday Paper, 14 August 2021).

Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis Report warns us that climate change, driven by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, is now affecting every continent and ocean on Earth, making extreme events such as heatwaves, wildfires, droughts as well as heavy rainfall and flooding more frequent and severe.

All of the above climatic extreme events are recent NSW experiences. Our beloved summer now comes with a sense of dread to many in NSW regional and bush communities. Our vital water resources and infrastructure need to have their resilience strengthened, as argued in a recent WRC White Paper, Water Resilience in NSW.  Sadly our state has some of the highest per capita emissions in the world – almost triple the global average.

Professor Denis O'Carroll

Yet at least one climate communications expert regretted the despairing headlines or tweets of some major global news agencies about the IPCC report. The Report was intended to impel action, not spread despair. While the climate impact of human actions is devastatingly real, a permanent destabilising of Earth’s climate resulting in widespread destruction of human cultures is not, yet, a forgone conclusion.

The engineering community’s job is not at all over. Professor Denis O’Carroll, Director of UNSW’s Water Research Laboratory (WRL) says that while civil and environmental engineers may not be able to solve all of the problems posed by climate change, since many solutions do lie in the political realm, they are certainly doing their utmost to mitigate impacts and build resilience. 

WRL has been working for years with a diverse range of government, engineering professional bodies and industry partners on climate change mitigation and adaption processes, including:

Associate Professor William Glamore inspecting tide gates Chris Drummond installing coastal imaging cameras Matt Blacka surveying Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga, Cook Islands
  • Award winning advanced coastal monitoring and development of coastal hazard early-warning systems to monitor the impacts of climate change on our beaches and coastlines
    Principal Coastal Engineer Matt Blacka says, “Our tools are more dynamic and systems more sophisticated; It’s all about satellites, smart phones, social media, crowd-sourced and machine learning. Dynamic visualisation of our beaches in real time and accessible data sets with which we can easily interact via dashboards and toolboxes - and all functioning via the cloud.”
  • Working with teams from a number of Pacific Island countries to address challenges related to climate change and sustainable development
    Examples include recent activities supporting the Cook Islands Government with technical advice for the preparation of projects related to climate resilience in their infrastructure sector, as well as investigations related to coastal environmental impacts and developments in the WASH sector.
  • Senior researchers including Ron Cox have provided information and guidance for the ports and maritime industry on climate change adaptation for infrastructure.
  • WRL is also fast increasing its activities and expertise in the field of offshore marine renewables
    Principal Engineer Dr Francois Flocard, an expert in the field of marine renewables, says that ocean energy, including wave and tidal energy conversion technologies, will likely be a crucial component in the world's emerging blue economy.
  • WRL was recently awarded an ARC Linkage Project entitled 'Controlling coastlines while generating power'
    This will see universities, local government and industry partners collaborate to conduct several wave flume and wave basin experiments to assess the potential for wave energy farms to produce power while providing additional protection to beaches or ports. 

Collecting data, Wooloweyah

Other researchers at UNSW’s Water Research Centre have made great contributions in:

  • Meaningfully assessing the impact of climate change on hydrology and water resources, including work on extreme rainfall under climate change, estimating design floods in a more meaningful way, issuing seasonal forecasts for water resources management, (Professor Ashish Sharma).
  • Assessing (and reducing) modelling uncertainty under climate change, and developing innovative ecohydrology models that simulate both hydrology and ecology in an increasingly warming world. (Scientia Associate Professor Fiona Johnson and Professor Lucy Marshall).
  • Helping cities around the world to adopt a more sustainable system of urban water management, by researching on the use of biofilters, wetlands and green walls to treat stormwater, greywater and ground water. These low-energy green technologies enable the removal of critical pollutants, pathogens and even micropollutants. These multifunctional systems also provide amenity and cooling benefits in our urban environment, assisting our cities to stay cool as urban temperatures rise under the impact of global warming. (Dr Kefeng Zhang and Dr Veljko Prodanovic at WaterGUM).
  • Designed solar-powered water purifying technologies for remote communities. (Professor David Waite).
  • Alice Harrison collecting iron floc samplesQuantifying the impacts and risks of mining on precious water supplies. (UNSW Scientia Associate Professor Fiona Johnson).
  • Continuing to work towards a more efficient urban water system, with purified recycled water for drinking closing the loop and ensuring urban water supplies. (Professor Stuart Khan).
  • Promoting the circular economy to reduce our earth-damaging waste. NSW has rising waste volumes, and plateauing resource recovery rates. It has been identified that NSW will not reach its target of net-zero emissions by 2050 without a circular economy in action. (Professor Tommy Wiedmann).

“Some things will have to change,” says Wiedmann, Professor of sustainability research in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “This doesn’t mean we have to go back to the stone age, but we need to work on development that respects ecological limits and leads to more equity in the world.” This means government, industry (producers) and individuals need to all pull together towards sustainability. And, from micro to macro level, there are solutions. 

About us: The UNSW Water Research Centre (WRC) provides a focus for multidisciplinary water and environmental engineeringresearch in energy, climatology, water/air quality and sustainability in cities, rural catchments and on the coastline. The Water Research Laboratory (WRL) project team, comprising professional engineers who work closely with and in parallel to their academic colleagues within UNSW Engineering, have a global reputation for the successful delivery of world-leading applied water engineering research.

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